Sun 27 Oct 2019 18.50 GMT
“Is there any way that Hong Kong can avoid becoming another Northern Ireland?”
This was the first question posed by a well-known Hong Kong activist at the start of a recent interview. A few months ago, the comparison to decades of civil unrest would have seemed absurd. But after 21 weekends of protests, the endgame seems further away than ever before. The escalating weekend insurgency and the police brutality deployed in response have marooned the territory in a cycle of violence that is doing serious damage to its economy, rule of law and public trust in its institutions.
Over the weekend, the assault on the rule of law intensified, after a court banned the harassment of, pestering or interfering with Hong Kong police, or assisting or inciting others to do so. This temporary injunction criminalises a whole range of previously lawful acts – including taking photos of policemen, heckling the police and singing anti-police protest songs. One of the injunction’s stated intentions is to outlaw the disclosure of officers’ personal details, to prevent “doxxing” (publishing identifying information online about them). But its effect will be to create a two-tier system providing more legal safeguards for police than ordinary citizens, turning Hong Kong’s predictable legal environment into an arbitrary, unequal one. The authorities are boxed in; any reforms that fall short of concessions could worsen the situation, as would no action
This month, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, activated the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance, not used since 1967, to make the use of face masks punishable by a HK$25,000 (£2,339) fine and up to one year in prison. The arbitrary suspension of public transport and the use of illegal assembly charges against protesters has also created a de facto curfew at weekends.
In Hong Kong, the abnormal has become normalised so quickly that the international community – distracted by Trump and Brexit – can hardly keep up. This week, there was surprisingly little attention given to the government’s formal withdrawal of the extradition law that originally sparked the crisis – in part because protesters’ demands have multiplied. Now the most serious challenge for Beijing and Hong Kong is the widespread call for universal suffrage – but the most pressing issue is protesters’ insistence on an independent inquiry into police behaviour.
Since June, police have arrested at least 2,580 people, including a 10-year-old, and fired 5,100 rounds of teargas – not to mention pepper spray, beanbag rounds, sponge grenades, rubber bullets, chemical-laced blue-dye shot from water cannons and live ammunition. One recent poll indicated that more than half of Hong Kongers have zero trust in the police, an astonishing breakdown in trust for a force once touted as “Asia’s finest”. Meanwhile, police have unleashed a dystopian parade of outlandish charges against citizens. These include a 19-year-old who was shot in the chest by police being charged with assaulting police, and being put under arrest while still in intensive care. Students carrying a plastic butter knife and laser pointers were detained for possessing offensive weapons. A couple taking their three-year-old for a bike ride were threatened with arrest for illegal assembly.
On the ground, police tactics against protesters regularly violate the force’s own guidelines, including targeting the press with pepper spray and teargas, and flashing lights to prevent reporters filming officers beating protesters. These tactics have radicalised demonstrators, who now regularly throw bricks and molotov cocktails at police, as well as vandalising businesses linked to pro-Beijing figures.
This breakdown of law and order has been exemplified by a wave of attacks on pro-democracy figures by the Triads organised crime syndicates. In the most violent of these, Jimmy Sham, a civil rights activist who organised the mass marches, was attacked by at least four men with hammers and left lying on the pavement in a pool of his own blood.
The escalation of this conflict on the streets has polarised Hong Kong society, and is sending the territory into recession, with tourism arrivals down 40%.
Beijing has repeatedly attempted to internationalise the crisis, using economic leverage to try to muzzle minor celebrities and multinational companies with business interests in China. The first target was the Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific, which was forced to sack at least 20 employees for showing support for the protests on social media. More recently, those showing public support for Hong Kong – including the YouTube star PewDiePie, online gamers on Blizzard and even the Houston Rockets basketball team have all been censored on China’s internet.
On the ground though, there is political stasis. Beijing has denied as a “political rumour” a Financial Times report that Lam may be made to resign next year, to be replaced by another unelected leader. Indeed, such a move would achieve little.Hong Kong protesters in UK say they face pro-Beijing intimidation
In any case, authorities may soon see the extent of voter alienation at the ballot boxes; at the end of November, district council elections could redraw the political landscape at the grassroots level, given the 386,000 new voters who have signed up. The authorities are boxed in: any political reforms that fall short of concessions or real dialogue would likely worsen the situation, as would no action at all. If Beijing’s long-term strategy is to stall while accelerating Hong Kong’s absorption into the Greater Bay Area – Beijing’s answer to Silicon Valley, which would connect 11 southern Chinese cities – that, too, would heighten the sense among protesters of having little left to lose.
Either way, Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula is in tatters. All attempts to intimidate protesters with police violence and mass arrests have instead radicalised the movement. Now Hong Kongers are girding themselves for a long struggle ahead. Vast numbers still turn out for unauthorised protests, wearing masks to taunt the administration and underscore its impotence. As the weeks pass, the issues become ever more intractable, the conflict more entrenched and society ever more divided. If the government does not budge and the violence continues to escalate, Hong Kong’s own Troubles may last for decades.
• Louisa Lim is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited and a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer and journalist based in Hong Kong